Criminally Minded: The Stylistics of Justification in Contemporary American Crime Fiction

By Gregoriou, Christiana | Style, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Criminally Minded: The Stylistics of Justification in Contemporary American Crime Fiction


Gregoriou, Christiana, Style


This paper is part of a study to explore the stylistics of contemporary American crime fiction. In the paper I conduct an investigation into the criminal mind as portrayed in contemporary works by Patricia Cornwell, Michael Connelly and James Patterson, and I address the issue of how the criminals' actions are evaluated and justified. The extracts under analysis convey the criminals' viewpoints, and are analysed in terms of various connected stylistic models, including that of mind style, point of view, the type of narration employed, and the scale of interference that narration allows. The different criminals are contrasted in an attempt to provide answers to the question, "Are contemporary American criminals presented as having been born evil of are their actions justified, for instance by means of their childhood traumatic experiences?" I finally draw on the implications that the study has as to the notion of mind style in particular.

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1. Introduction

Much has been written about crime fiction, from a range of approaches. While some writers view the genre as mete entertainment, crime fiction has been elsewhere treated seriously. Critics such as Ball, Winks, Roth, Messent, and others have described both the history of the genre and changing attitudes to it. According to Knight (1), less evaluative approaches have tried to establish why crime fiction is so compelling; psychoanalysts found the basis of the form's patterns in the psychic anxieties of writers and readers, while another type of analysis has seen the social attitudes and pressures of the modern environment as the basic drive in crime fiction. Overall, though the development of the genre has been traced by literary critics, psychoanalysts, and sociologists, little linguistic work has been undertaken in the area.

This article is part of a study that aims to explore the stylistic forms involved in the production of contemporary American crime novels and therefore aims to contribute to both the discipline of literary criticism and that of cognitive stylistics. The study focuses on the portrayal of the criminal mind as figured in contemporary works by James Patterson, Michael Connelly, and Patricia Cornwell, and this paper directly addresses the issue of how this mind comes to be morally situated.

These three have been chosen not only because they are best-selling authors, but also to illustrate three different criminal types. Extracts are taken from Patterson's Cat And Mouse, Connelly's The Poet, and Cornwell's Southern Cross. Whereas Patterson's portrayed criminal is indeed a serial killer, that of Connelly is a pedophile, and that of Cornwell a thief.

In addition, whereas the first two excerpts allow access to the criminal's consciousness correspondingly in the form of third person internal and first person narration, the third excerpt is in the form of a third person external narration, and hence the selection would cover various forms of the criminal portrayal in the field. Though the excerpt from the Cornwell novel is not one from her best-known series (featuring Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta) and is not an excerpt from the criminal's viewpoint, it does however implicitly deal with the matter at hand: the issue of how the criminal's actions are evaluated and justified. Altogether, the selection will allow me to contrast me different criminals in an attempt to provide answers to the question, "Are contemporary American crime fiction criminals presented as having been born evil or are their actions justified for instance by means of their childhood traumatic experiences?"

The stylistic models I will be using to analyze the extracts, namely those of type of narration, point of view, and mind style, are introduced in section 3. I will apply the frameworks to the three extracts and discuss the extent to which such forms of stylistic analysis would explain the different justifications of the actions of the portrayed criminals. …

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